All Conferences are Political: Johannesburg Gap Fest


Development is good but politics is more interesting.  Thousands of valuable position papers must have been submitted to the International Conference in Johannesburg on sustainable development yet the main stories were about disagreements on fuel fossils, depleted fisheries and the Kyodo Accords on the ozone layer.  Surely the conference’s Secretary General, Nittin Desai, made useful efforts to arrive at a consensus but the public was more interested on how Robert Mugabe told Tony Blair “to keep his British hands off Zimbabwe land” or how some groups jeered Colin Powell, possibly the most sympathetic American official to their cause.  The majority of the 60,000 people who assembled in the South African capital hardly read the final document.  Half of them will have different interpretations of what sustainable development actually meant.   It took ten years to agree on a definition of “development decade”.  Two decades were required to find out precisely which were the least developed of developing countries.  Economists take more time. They always have to consider the other hand.  Yet eventually all those efforts proved to be worthwhile.  A consensus is reached and a universal framework is solidly established.    It may not make today’s headlines, but will make tomorrow’s headlines better.

A landmark achievement of the Johannesburg conference is the active participation by three main groups:  the public sector, representing governments, non governmental organizations representing civil society; and for the first time a wide cross-section of the private sector represented by a number of Chief Executives.   Another accomplishment is that the conference mobilized political support and focused public attention on the issue of development.  Attendance by about 100 Heads of State indicated that they were at least listening, however short their attention span.   A main drawback may be the lack of precise strategy for that unwieldy gathering, and a fragmented communications approach in presenting its purpose.  Hopes should not have been raised by advanced hyped statements.  Some vulnerable points could have been averted.  For example, it was not essential for the committee members preparing the draft agreement on poverty to do so in the exotic resort of Bali, leaving several key paragraphs in contentious brackets.  The executive director in charge of running the conference Mr Moss Mahishihi used to run a gaming company more attuned to the operation of slot machines than the needs of the wretched of the earth.  While preparing for the task ahead, the professionals of the Department for Public Information were frequently interrupted by others with conflicting political motivations.  They also had to contend with a favored, yet transient, consulting company which lost its steam half way after squandering available resources.  As usual, it was then left to the regular field staff to try and do much more with much much less.

The targets for sustainable development had actually been set in earlier meetings starting with Rio ten years ago.  A determination to half the number of poor by the year 2015 was already taken at the Millennium Summit.  The recommendation that industrial countries would devote 0.07% of their national budgets to international assistance was taken about 20 years ago.  Until today, only three countries adhered to it: Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark.  

The need to mobilize efforts and improve the quality of life could take different forms including such gatherings as in Johannesburg.  The stress should be on systematic field work with sustained practical results.  International conferences, like delicate dishes, have to be rare and well done, particularly when you have a year to prepare.  It was unfair to place the Secretary-General in a position where he had to personally pacify disgruntled participants.  Drawing on his discreet sense of humor, he quipped to an aide: “clearly, this is not Rio”.

What should be done is well known.  Doing it is the challenge.  Otherwise you will find those who would have felt that the $50,000,000 spent for the three-day conference could have fared better luck at Mr Mahishihi’s casino, or more seriously, could have found better use by handing the money directly to the poor.